August 29, 2010
Illustration: Matt Davidson
After a near-death experience, rebirth is the only way forward for ALP.
THE Labor machine is desperate to cultivate the view that Julia Gillard’s campaign was derailed by a series of explosive leaks during the second week.
According to one source, national secretary Karl Bitar wasted no time hitting the phones on the Sunday morning after the poll, warning senior figures to run the ”line” in the media that the disastrous result had everything to do with the leaks.
Bitar was particularly keen to impress the need to protect Gillard, defend the leadership coup he helped instigate and minimise bloody recriminations. All of this to maximise the chances of striking a deal with the country independents.
It’s true that the cabinet leaks, which included reports that Gillard had argued against a paid parental leave scheme and a pension increase, were a disaster for Labor. They suggested a political party being white-anted within and they portrayed Gillard as unsympathetic to retirees and families. Bitar himself admits there was a point in the campaign when he suspended all research because ”it was pretty much a waste of money”. ”We were facing swings of anywhere between 10 and 12 per cent across the country,” he said.
That may be so, but if Bitar expects us to seriously believe the leaks were the only reason for the train wreck, he is either deluded or takes voters for idiots.
First, the Labor Party knifed a popularly elected prime minister, installed a new one, called an election a couple of weeks later, and expected voters not to notice. The naive belief seemed to be that Gillard would surf to power on a wave of euphoria as Australia’s first female prime minister.
The wave turned out to be more of a ripple. The suddenness of Rudd’s disposal left many voters feeling shocked.
As Monash University politics lecturer Paul Strangio notes: ”The belief seems to have settled in the Labor Party that changing leaders is the formula to success rather than greater philosophical clarity … The messiah complex seems to have become more and more developed in the Labor Party.”
Second, as one senior Labor frontbencher told The Sunday Age, Gillard effectively denied herself the chance to campaign on Labor’s record by claiming Labor under Rudd had ”lost its way”. To some extent Gillard needed to do this to justify her decision to challenge Rudd. Yet the justification came at a huge cost.
Third, Gillard’s attempts to quickly fix political problems associated with the mining tax, boat arrivals and emissions trading were seriously botched.
She alienated smaller miners by negotiating only with three big resource companies; her proposal for a regional asylum seeker processing centre in Timor was so full of holes it sunk within hours; and her ”citizens assembly” to reach a consensus on climate change was widely ridiculed as one of the worst policy ideas ever.
Fourth, Gillard’s rhetoric and decisions on emissions trading and asylum seekers – designed to appeal to swinging voters – severely alienated Labor’s base on the left of the political spectrum.
Bitar and Gillard were responsible for a campaign so focused on focus groups the Labor Party ended up looking like it stood for nothing. The two political parties became a sort of homogenous mush as they scrambled to win the middle. Labor’s primary vote was eroded from both ends. Gillard not only infuriated people on the left, she failed to comprehensively convince the centre and centre-right.
Fifth, there were justifiable worries that the diseased arm of the NSW Labor Party had infected the party federally. Of particular concern was the role played by NSW knifemen Bitar and Mark Arbib in the leadership coup. Gillard did little to help the situation by tying herself to the NSW government through a long-promised rail link in western Sydney.
There is an emerging consensus that a hung Parliament will be disastrous for Australian democracy. The prevailing view is that the Parliament will be beholden to the whims of three bumpkins who are already making outrageous demands for parliamentary reform. Some commentators are going so far as to suggest we should now head back to the polls.
To add to the uncertainty, Family First senator Steve Fielding, who will continue to hold a balance of power position in the Senate until July next year, is now threatening to render the Parliament ungovernable by blocking financial bills if Gillard forms government, claiming ”voters are not happy with Labor”. (You could be forgiven for thinking Australia’s Parliament is looking like the mad hatter’s tea party, except now a goose has waddled in.)
Yet it should not be a foregone conclusion that a minority government would be bad for Australia. Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor are both competent and level-headed men. Bob Katter may be erratic and eccentric but he is no fool, having survived in various political incarnations for decades.
As former Victorian premier Steve Bracks points out, the current situation has some ”scary” parallels to the deadlock in Victoria following the 1999 state election. It took a month to resolve, but Bracks went on to form a functional and reformist minority government that served Victoria well.
”It was actually scary in a way,” Bracks told the ABC’s 7.30 Report. ”We had three independents. They were all country independents. We had one less seat than the Liberal National Party at the time. We had 42, they had 43.”
There is no reason why the three federal independents could not likewise produce some strong policy outcomes and positive reforms. There is, for example, a historic opportunity to overhaul the operation of question time. There is also a need to reform the system of political donations, which have been blamed for producing an election funding arms race.
Thankfully, many of Bitar’s colleagues are ignoring his advice. The recriminations are starting to flow. This is, perhaps, no bad thing for the Labor Party. The alternative would mean Labor accepting its primary vote will continue to languish well below 40 per cent, with a building sense of disappointment from voters across the political spectrum.
Josh Gordon is The Sunday Age’s national political reporter.